Monday, March 10, 2014

Great Leaders Don't Do...Anything

Don't let the title of this post fool you.  Great leaders do...something...but what is it?

I may have mentioned this recollection in a previous post, but I'll start out with it anyway.  Earlier in my career, around about the year 2000, I was a "youngish" 30-something Group Director with a very large, as in multi-billion dollar, forest products company.  At the time I was in charge of roughly 700 people divided into about 400 internal employees and the rest contractors of different types.  In addition to the stresses of the job, I was also experiencing some "heinous" generational clashes with my peers.  You see, in this company, a person didn't typically get to my level without at least:

a) 20+ years on the job
b) an "acceptable" progression of jobs leading up to the higher position
c) being of an age where people tend to think about the expense of college for their children or at least an impending retirement.

Yes, there I was as a Generation X'er with all my peers being Baby Boomers and even one from the Silent Generation.  Needless to say, I had a much different perspective on what was important and how to approach work (and authority) than did my peers.  I did a lot of learning, mostly from pain-based stimuli, during that time.  As a disclaimer, no one generation has a claim on being "right" or "correct" in its collective outlook.  We just know that they are different.

I had one peer with whom I had more philosophical differences than others.  That's not to say I was always in conflict - I wasn't.  There were plenty of times where we all collaborated.  But I would say is that the generational differences between the overall peer group and me led to more chances for friction. 

One day this peer leveled what he believed, at the time, to be the most devastating criticism of all time against me.  He said: "Christopher, you're a great leader but a really poor manager."  In truth, given my experience in the culture of the company, the criticism was likely true.  I was more interested in leading the team than filling out daily TPS reports.  But at the same time, I deserved some heat for not conforming enough to the corporate culture.  It is never a good idea to be oblivious or insensitive to issues of corporate culture.  To do so is to "thumb your nose" at years of tradition.  Not a good way to be seen as a team player.

So yes, the criticism about not being a "good manager" stung for years afterwards.  That is, until I did some reflection and truly started thinking about the differences between leading and managing.

A great analogy that sums up the differences comes from the life and work of Julia Childs (the super chef of the 20th century).  Julia wrote several definitive cookbooks, each of which laid the groundwork for others to cook truly delicious meals.  Julia was the leader.  If you've recently had one of her dishes, did she cook it for you?  No, she didn't.  Yet without her guidance you would not have had the meal.  The chef who actually produced the meal, no the experience, was likely involved with a whole team.  In this case, the chef was the manager who oversaw all of the preparations needed to make sure you were served.  In the instance of your meal, did Julia Childs do anything?  The answer is "No", but then also "Yes".  I think you can see the distinction. 

Wherever and whenever you find a great leader you can be assured that s/he is surrounded by a number of other great people.  The leader creates the framework but the others execute the task(s) necessary to get things done.  It is for this reason that I use models like the "Talent Triangle" when I hire people for my team.  In order to pursue my continuing dream of being a great leader I know that I cannot also, at the same time, be a great manager or a "doer" of tasks.  Take it from someone who has studied the subject for over a decade - the two are pretty much mutually exclusive.

Yes, great leaders can and do perform tasks all the time.  But in terms of running an organization, almost assuredly the leaders are setting the framework and guidelines that allow the truly great practitioners to execute - what they, in turn, do best.

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